Some fallen “sailors” (Photo: Dan Molnar)
If thousands of trees fall in the forest, you can bet somebody will hear it
The Eastern Sierra has seen its share of powerful winds, but the gusts that blew through much of California on Nov. 30, 2011, were particularly ferocious. The same wind event that pummeled the greater Pasadena area in Southern California was even fiercer in the Eastern Sierra, toppling thousands of trees in the Middle Fork San Joaquin River watershed of the Inyo National Forest (INF). The epic level of devastation has led to a recovery effort that’s become known, unofficially, as “Operation Blowdown.”
Reports from the U.S. Forest Service say the tangle of trees resembles “a giant’s game of pick-up sticks.” Winds well in excess of 150 miles per hour were recorded, often registering “off the chart” gusts on monitoring equipment at the top of Mammoth Mountain Ski Area.
What generated the wind that caused the damage? No one knows with any real certainty yet, but scientists and weather researchers are already studying the event. Federal forest and land agencies, and numerous nature and environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and Friends of the Inyo among others, are already pooling their resources to stage the massive cleanup effort that will be involved in getting things back to, or at least as close to normal as possible.
“How do we respond so that people can recreate, and assist scientists and researchers in finding out the cause?” Sue Farley, INF and Bishop Bureau of Land Management Vegetation Project Manager, asked.
The damage occurred in random patches, from Island Pass to Fish Creek, and throughout the Reds Meadow valley and down to the Whitney Portal. According to INF Wilderness Trail Manager Michael Morse, who covers the North Zone including Mammoth, volunteers have already hiked and documented about 45 miles from Reds Meadow, Crater Creek, Fish Creek and up to Thousand Island Lake.
Morse said downed trees in sections of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and Mammoth Pass exhibit characteristics suggesting they were hit by a “microburst,” typically a column of plunging air, producing damaging winds at the surface that have similarities to a tornado. It’s not been determined, however, if this event qualifies as a “microburst.”
There are, he said, hundreds of trees in 10-foot-high piles. Everything in a SW aspect was hit, and the patterning seems to fall within the 7,500 feet to 9,000 feet timberline. Farley said the wind took out a lot of “sailors,” which are often the biggest and oldest trees that have large canopies, those resembling “sails.”
Not unlike tornado damage, the event’s randomness is both perplexing and yet awesome in the level of devastation. “There are at least 2,000 to 3,000 trees down that we know of,” Morse related. “The volunteers stopped counting after 800 trees and had only gone 3 miles.”
The Mammoth Lakes Basin only had about 100 trees downed. “We used to think of that as a lot,” Farley said. Still unknown are what happened in the Fish Creek drainage and Duck Pass areas.
In the Reds Meadow valley hundreds of trees are down in campgrounds, picnic areas, trailheads, and access trails. Extensive clean-up work is needed to remove downed trees and to repair the roads, trails, utility lines, restroom buildings, picnic tables, and food storage lockers damaged by fallen trees. “This is uncharted territory to deal with damage of this magnitude,” Deanna Dulen, Superintendent at Devils Postpile National Monument, noted. “You have to see it to believe it,” Morse remarked. “Even when you see it, it’s still hard to get your head around it,” Farley added. “We’ve never seen anything like it in recent history.” Records, Farley indicated, point to a similar event that occurred approximately 150 years ago.
In terms of trails status, Morse said the 9 trailheads in Reds Meadow valley all have debris. The PCT has been deemed “impassable,” with lots of climbing required. One hiker who emerged from the trail not long after the event said it took his group about 25 minutes to go a half-mile in some parts. Officials are working with the PCT Association on alternate routes. The official kickoff of the PCT hiking season is April 30, but most hikers don’t arrive until late June.
There are some trails, however, that have little or no damage. The Piute Pass and the Golden Trail out of Lone Pine only have about 40 trees to address, and nearby June Lake and Lundy Canyon have minimal, if any, tree issues.
Meanwhile, Farley said the INF has been working on an inventory of the downed trees, and a strategic plan to complete and repair work as quickly as possible, in a manner that will have the least impact on public use this summer.
“Our goal is to open as many of the Reds Meadow valley recreation sites and trails to the public as soon as is feasible and safe,” Jon Regelbrugge, Mammoth District Ranger, said in a media statement. “Every site in the valley has some amount of trees down and damage,” INF Recreation Staff Officer Jon Kazmierski reported.
Least affected: Pumice Group sites, which have no infrastructure damage. Most affected: Agnew Campground, which has only 3 sites not impacted. Destroyed there are picnic tables, bear boxes, fire rings and restroom facilities. Numerous “root wads” — about 400 — will need to be cut apart and removed, and craters left from the root systems will need to be filled in. “That might be a total rebuild,” Kazmierski suggested, but added that much of Agnew is buried at the moment. “You literally can’t see the campground for the trees,” Farley said.
This season’s snow drought, which lasted into January actually proved to be a “blessing in disguise,” according to Kazmierski. A regular snow pattern would have put the effort much further behind. “If we’d waited until the spring melt off to reveal the damage, we’d have had no clue what was in store at this point,” Morse assessed.
Reservations have nonetheless been suspended for the time being over what Kazmierski said was general “uncertainty” about access to the Valley.
Many of the camps, however, aren’t likely to look the same as they did before the “blowdown,” and there will be stumps and tree limbs removed on an ongoing basis throughout camping season.
The break in snow allowed downed trees to be removed from Reds Meadow Road, Reds Meadow Campground, the Rainbow Falls trailhead, and the Ranger Station area and Devils Postpile trail. Kazmierski said the Lakes Basin campgrounds will likely open on schedule, as well as the Convict Lake and Sherwin campgrounds, which are both getting new restrooms (not related to the wind event). Those he said are still on track to be ready on or before Memorial Day weekend.
Farley said implementing any strategy will depend on “variables that can’t be pinned down now,” such as weather, residual snowpack and emergency funding sources. Earlier and later timing scenarios are likely to be developed during the next few weeks with roads listed as a top priority, since access is the key to everything.
Also in the mix are partnerships with organizations such as FOI, which has amassed significant trail maintenance experience as part of its successful Summer of Stewardship programs. Local trails and camping sites with 20-30 trees downed could be handled by FOI and its volunteer crews, letting the INF and its crews focus on large scale work.
“We are already planning for the Inyo needing extra help,” Stacy Corless, FOI Executive Director, said. Corless said that FOI’s help will extend to an annual trails trip with the PCT Association staged out of the Red’s Pack Station on June 30-July 6.
Environmental concerns are also part of the strategy. “As we remove, we’ll be mindful of wildlife and environment protection,” Farley pointed out.
The INF is seeking any experienced retired or volunteer tree fallers and saw cutters. Contact the local INF offices or Friends of the Inyo to sign up.